PMQs review: Cameron leaves the Tories wanting more

The PM demolished Miliband as he declared that the Labour leader had "impersonated more politicians than Rory Bremner".

After a series of unnoteworthy exchanges between David Cameron and Ed Miliband on Gaza and the NHS, today's PMQs came to life right at the end. After Miliband declared that "the people of Corby spoke for the country", Cameron replied that "the people of Humberside spoke for the entire nation", a reference to John Prescott's defeat in last week's police and crime commissioner elections, which Prescott unfortunately described as "a referendum on everything the coalition has done".

This artful riposte prompted cheers from Tory MPs, with Cameron responding, "happily, there is more". And there was. After noting that Miliband had invoked Disraeli, compared himself to Thatcher, described himself as more eurosceptic than Bill Cash, and more pro-European than Tony Blair, he quipped: "he's impersonated more politicians than Rory Bremner, but this time the joke's on him". It was Cameron's best line for months and as the PM sat down, Tory MPs cried, "more! more!

Until that point, Miliband had had the better of the exchanges, with Cameron unable to answer the charge that he had broken his promise to prevent rationing on cost in the NHS. As the PM leaned over to Andrew Lansley, Miliband quipped, "don't ask him for advice, you sacked him!" But the Labour leader then unwisely segued into last week's elections, allowing Cameron to deliver his knockout blow.

David Cameron leaves Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 20 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.